Maybe you shouldn't tell your employer you are sick.
What information can you share at work that may lead to you losing out on a promotion, being passed up for extra training, not receiving your expected raise or bonus, being marginalized in decision making processes or isolated and treated with kid gloves?...... Tell them you are sick.
Unfortunately, all too often, letting it be known in the workplace that you are suffering from a significant illness can change things drastically. The reasons are not always malicious. Sometimes it is unconscious. Sometimes it is well meaning. Tell them you have cancer and everyone treats you with kid gloves. Tell them you are going to be scheduled for major surgery and suddenly that expected promotion disappears. Tell them you suffer from anxiety and depression and people stop talking to you out of fear that they may trigger you. Suddenly, you are perceived as damaged goods. On average, we are working longer and later in life. Unless you are one of the lucky few, at some point during that journey you will suffer from a significant illness.
Pursuant to the Ontario Human Rights Code,
the employer has an obligation not to treat you differently and to accommodate your illness to the point of undue hardship.
If you need accommodation, it is your obligation under the Code
to communicate that to your employer. You do not have to share details of your diagnosis unless it is necessary in order to talk about the kind of accommodation needed. Generally speaking, employers will not be held liable for failing to do something they did not know was needed for accommodation.
For the reasons set out above, people are often reticent to share information about their illness or need for accommodation. On the other hand if the employer knew or ought to have known that an employee’s performance was being affected by a disability, they will not be off the hook. Often, people in the workplace are the first ones to identify a disability, even before partners and spouses.
Imagine the case of a forklift operator who is prescribed medication to treat seizures. She begins to experience memory lapses and one day has difficulty remembering the protocol for safe operation of the forklift.
Her manager notices this uncharacteristic behaviour. At that point the manager has two choices before him: Either start taking disciplinary action arising from the breach of safety procedures or sit the employee down and ask them what is going on. The ideal conversation involves the manager asking the forklift operator if there had been any significant changes in her life that could be affecting her behaviour. Once the memory lapses are pointed out, the employee correlates the change with the new medication and goes back to the doctor to fix the issue.
I wish it always unfolded this way.
If the employee denies there are any medical issues the employer can insist that the employee obtain a doctor’s note that the employer will pay for, confirming their fitness for work.
The employee should be given a letter outlining the concerns and uncharacteristic behaviour that have been observed in the workplace and requiring a doctor’s note that confirms the doctor has reviewed that letter. One cannot expect an employee who is not aware of changes in their performance and behaviour to report it accurately to the doctor.
Other times the employee is aware that they suffer from a disability. They do not want to disclose because they do not want to be stigmatized and isolated in the workplace. They know that it is starting to affect their performance but they are hoping that nobody is noticing.
If you are ever in that situation and start to be disciplined or disadvantaged in the workplace as a result of performance deterioration, think very hard about keeping your secret. Unless the employer knew or ought to have known there was a medical cause, one can hardly fault them.
Perhaps if all of us could expunge from our souls the idea that having a disability is a character flaw rather than a fact of life, both the stigmatization and harmful secrecy would disappear.
Ed Canning practices labour and employment law with Ross & McBride LLP, in Hamilton, representing both employers and employees. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org